Tuesday, August 16, 2016

A strategy for arguing against physicalism

Here's an interesting argument schema:

  1. A single particle makes no definite difference to whether something has F.
  2. F is not vague.
  3. I definitely have F
  4. A single particle definitely does not have F
  5. So, I am not merely made of particles.
The inference goes something like this: If I am merely made of particles, one could just take away the particles one by one. If F is not vague, there will be a point at which F will definitely disappear by (4). But a single particle makes no difference to having F, so we must reject the assumption that I am merely made of particles.

The challenge in this argument schema is to find Fs that satisfy (1)-(4) (and typically (4) will be uncontroversial). Here are some plausible candidates:

  • consciousness
  • being a moral agent
  • rights (variants: being an end rather than a means; being such that it is wrong to intentionally kill one if one does not deserve it)
  • representation of the world (intentionality)
  • a teleological directedness to knowledge/virtue/etc.
Given a number of candidates for F we can run this meta-argument:
  1. At least one of these candidates satisfies (1)-(4).
  2. So, I am not merely made of particles.
And (6), being a large disjunction, will be probable.


SMatthewStolte said...

I am interpreting 1 in a way so that the following comes out true: a single particle makes a difference in whether the camel’s back is broken.

I’m fairly sure that none of the subatomic particles inside my head is individually necessary for me to have intentional states, but if you remove them one by one, eventually it will no longer be possible for me to have intentional states—say, at least by the time I die. As this goes for intentional states, it also goes for the other things on your list. Take the example of rights. Suppose that someone has removed so many subatomic particles from my head that I will die if I lose one more. You would clearly be violating one of my rights if you removed that last one. But once that last one has been removed, I no longer have that right. So that single particle makes a definite difference about whether I have this right.

Still, you might think I am capable of having some features independently of whether I am dead or alive. For example, my consciousness might continue or I might still be teleologically directed towards having a glorified body and enjoying a beatific vision. But if that’s true, then they are features I have independently of whether I have a body at all, and it seems unlikely that a physicalist would be willing to grant that those are real features.

wrf3 said...

Start removing particles from your car. At some point, you won't have a car. This argument falls in the presence of redundancy.

Alexander R Pruss said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Alexander R Pruss said...


"Car" is a vague predicate. So premise 2 is violated in that case.


If a single particle makes a difference as to whether you have intentional states, there is either a metaphysical necessity or a law of nature giving a precise connection between the arrangement of particles and the intentional states. It is not plausible, however, that a metaphysical necessity would make such a distinction between two organic states which hardly differ in their functioning. On the other hand, laws of nature give causal or causal-like relationships between distinct events. They could specify that the arrangement of particles causes the intentional states, but that would imply that the intentional states are distinct from the arrangement of particles.

I should make clear that I was thinking about whether a single particle by itself constitutes the difference. Suppose that there is a law of nature that your soul gets separated from your body as soon as your particle count drops below N. (Of course, only a toy model.) Then a particle causally makes a difference to whether you are alive, but it does not constitute the difference: the difference between dead and alive is constituted by whether your soul is united to your body then, which causally depends on the particles.

William said...

If you insist that reductive physicalism reduce everything to subatomic interactions, physicalism fails at almost every other level, so this sorities proves too much, I think.

The argument works because the measured quality at the living organism level, such as correctly performing a behavior reflecting consciousness, has a huge separation in scale from the particle count, by which I mean that the exact number of subatomic particles used by the person is completely irrelevant to the macroscopic performance. Vagueness of the exact number of particles is of no consequence to the certainty of the macroscopic outcome.

Yes, wrf3 is right, the same applies to cars and to hurricanes: see


Anonymous said...

(2) is always wrong because all words are vague (including ones like consciousness etc.), for reasons I've given in other posts here.

William said...

I interpreted "F is not vague" to mean "F is not vague in this case" rather than "F cannot ever be vague." Just in case that was vague :)